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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Stanley Basin Blues

Air Date: Week of

Producer Jane Fritz revisits a wild river she knew in her youth - central Idaho's Stanley Basin. In the old days the river was filled with thousands of salmon and steelhead trout. From her home in Clark Fork, Idaho, Jane Fritz sent us this reporters' notebook.


CURWOOD: As a teenager, producer Jane Fritz visited a wild river in central Idaho's Stanley Basin for the first time. It ran through a sparsely-populated valley rimmed by miles-high jagged mountains. And it was filled with thousands of salmon and steelhead trout. The fish would journey 900 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean back to their birth waters to spawn and die. This river became her favorite wild place. But her visits there now have become melancholy. From her home in Clark Fork, Idaho, Jane Fritz sent us this reporter's notebook.

(A car engine runs)

FRITZ: I first saw this wild river as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. My best friend, her sister, and I drove cross-country looking for adventure. The sign in our car window read Idaho Or Bust, puzzling most folks along the way. But I knew better. I grew up with my father's amazing stories about fishing Idaho's spectacular Salmon River.

(Rushing water)

FRITZ: It's known as the River of No Return.

(Rushing water continues)

FRITZ: The headwaters of the Salmon River are here in this valley, surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Sawtooths. From a tiny, shallow stream grows a wild river, flowing fast and flamboyant over colorful rocks, curving around mountains, and dancing past boulders.

(Mozart plays)

FRITZ: Mozart, I think, must have written his piano concertos for this place.

(Mozart and rushing water continue)

FRITZ: Downstream, the Salmon River deepens and widens, its unbridled wildness challenging river rafters and boaters. But here in the Stanley Basin, it's still a youthful river, and its tributaries are narrow and shallow. That June long ago, my friends and I saw chinook salmon swimming up a feeder stream to spawn in the gravel bed where it was born. We'd never seen such big fish. We didn't comprehend at the time their long journey from the ocean, nor the danger they faced in survival. But we returned home with our own fish stories to tell. A decade later I moved to Idaho, the memory of mountains and rivers with big fish luring me west.

(Mozart and rushing water continue)

FRITZ: There's this great picture of you here. What is this?

COLE: That's the first fish I ever caught (laughs).

FRITZ: That's no little fish. That's about 4 feet long.

COLE: Twenty-six and three quarter pounds (laughs).

FRITZ: My friend Kathy Cole owns the Sawtooth Hotel in Stanley, Idaho. The many photos on the hotel wall show dozens of huge salmon half as long as the fishermen straining to hold them up. I marvel at the number and size of the fish. Kathy says before 1960, the fishing was even better.

(Splashing water)

FRITZ: Kathy's husband Steve grew up in the valley. He recalls as a young boy some spawning streams being so thickly crammed with frenzied fish, their tails splashing, their bodies lurching half out of the water, that he could imagine walking across the stream on the backs of the big fish.

(Splashing continues, intensifies, decreases)

FRITZ: But the salmon and steelhead populations began to dwindle in the 60s and 70s. Four hydroelectric dams built on the lower Snake River downstream blocked their way. The last fishing season for wild salmon in the Stanley Basin was in 1976.

COLE: This year, they actually had what they considered a considerable number of salmon return, and that was in the range of 200 fish. Two hundred fish is as good as extinct in my mind, because it just is nothing in comparison to what was here in the past.

FRITZ: These spring and fall chinook, sockeye salmon, steelhead trout, were the strongest, most powerful swimmers in the Columbia River system. Kathy Cole believes that their loss is a wound that might never heal, despite heroic attempts to finally begin recovering the fish, through hatchery breeding and small release programs. The losses to the ecological integrity of the area and the genetic diversity of wild salmon are bad enough, Kathy says. But it's the cultural losses that really bother her. Lemhi-Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock Indians have traditionally fished these waters for millennia. She imagines for them, losing the salmon would be like losing a member of the family. And then there's the others who now live in the valley.

COLE: It means that my children, who were born in the Stanley Basin, will never be able to fish for a native fish here. And I feel that that's their heritage. To lose something that magnificent to our culture and to our native waters here is a loss that I just can't put words to.

FRITZ: Kathy Cole doesn't want the photographs on the wall to be the only evidence of the abundant fishery once found here. She's encouraged by discussions underway to breach the four Snake River dams, to help the salmon in the Stanley Basin survive and perhaps even thrive again.

(Rushing water)

FRITZ: I still come here to the Salmon River, 400 miles from my home, when I need time alone. It's where I come to make decisions. To mull over the cycles of life and death. To connect with the memory of my father, who first told me about it. It's still the most beautiful and peaceful place I know. But every visit is a bittersweet one. The river's name has become almost a mockery of what it once was.

(Mozart plays; water rushes)

FRITZ: Years ago, my father told me that the Salmon got its nickname, "The River of No Return," because it was one incredibly wild river. I only hope that someday I don't have to tell my daughter that it was because the fish for which it was named never made it back. For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz along the Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho.



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